If you were to ask me what some of the key spiritual ideas I want to give my children are, one of the ones right up top would be that they are made in the image of God.
It’s a foundational truth for Judaism and Christianity, and it is given to us in the first pages of our scriptures, in the Creation story that was told amongst the Israelites. The story goes that God has been creating the world – the seas and the skies, the plants and the animals – and then the passage reads, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The idea that we resemble God, like a child resembles its parent, or how a painting somehow speaks something of the character of the artist.
Apparently the Hebrew word for image, is tselem, and comes “from an unused root meaning to shade”*. I’m no scholar so I can’t say much to that except that I love the idea that we are like God’s shadow, having the same shape, walking and moving the same way. And yet I think it’s more colourful even that that! We sometimes describe children as our shadows when they take to following us around, doing as we do. Kaya often comes out with phrases that I recognise as my own, she dances like me (sorry sweetie!), she already has habits picked up from her Far and I. In the same way, we all resemble the divine in some central and unbreakable way – we grow up looking and behaving like God! – and that is a beautiful and empowering thought.
It’s important to me that Kaya and Oskar growing up knowing this first – that they are made in the image of God and that God looks at them and says that they are “very good” (“original goodness”). Many churches emphasise our brokenness (“original sin”) but I think that’s like starting the story in the middle of the book. I want them to know their belovedness as the core of who they are as people.
I’ve thought this way since before they were born, but in the autumn I spent an evening studying this concept again for a course I am on. I came home that night with Kaya on my mind. She is two and half, and she is developing so fast – new words every day, understanding concepts and figuring out new skills, learning how to interact with adults and other children and her newly-mobile little brother. And all that newness is both an exciting and scary place for her to inhabit.
I realised that evening, that I had not been treating her as if she was made in the image of God. Not really. I’d been approaching her more as an unfinished creation, a project that God had started off but I needed to complete. I was acting as if my role as a parent was to mould her and shape her into the person she was meant to be, created to be.
Instead I was struck by this simple and profound realisation: she is already whole and perfectly formed. That’s part of what it means that she is made in the image of God. I don’t have to try and force her into God’s likeness, because she already completely resembles God, just as she is.
Maybe it sounds like a subtle shift, and I guess it was, but from the next morning I was behaving differently towards her. I tried to see her as a fully formed person, as equal to me in that sense, with her right to her own viewpoints and emotions, the right to make her own mistakes and she grows. I was no longer trying to squash or deny the parts of her that I felt didn’t fit – which was all the stuff that people would categorise under the heading “terrible twos” but which I came to realise was just her being a normal developing person.
What does this change look like? I try not to rush her through her emotions. If she is upset at something, even something I see as ridiculously insignificant, I remember that it is important to her and let her cry/sulk/get angry for as long as she needs to. If she’s being loud or silly in public, I remember she’s perfectly entitled to be loud and silly if she is comfortable being that way. When she wants something from me, I try to take her request seriously, not blowing it off but responding to it respectfully (even when I say no). If she refuses to be helpful in one moment, I remind myself that this moment is not the sum total of her personality (she is kind, she is helpful, she is generous), and that she is learning those values from watching me – so getting angry and stroppy in response is hardly the right move!
The thought that my two year old is made in the image of God, also releases me from the overwhelming burden of responsibility that starting with a concept of original sin often lays upon us. According to that theology, my child is profoundly broken from day one and I need to fix her, somehow make her good enough for society, and even for God. Starting with the concept of her original goodness doesn’t of course release me from all the normal responsibilities of being a parent – I am still her primary guide as she navigates these early years, and develops her own understanding of who she is and how the world works – but she is not broken and she does not need fixing. No, she is profoundly wonderful, full of goodness, growing up as a little girl resembling her Creator.
Let me end by saying this in no way made me the perfect parent. I am frequently impatient and selfish, angry and disrespectful. But even though I mess up, like my children I am made in the image of God, a God who looks at me and says, “very good”. So always, I begin again. Take a breath, begin again. And again. And again…
*I use a website called blue letter bible when I’m curious about the original Hebrew or Greek. It will tell you which words are used and where else in the Bible they crop up. I can fall down some fun rabbit holes there! Ancient Hebrew is complicated so I don’t pretend to suddenly have any incredible knowledge, but sometimes just the reminder of where and how else that word is used can illuminate a connection in my own life that I might not have seen.